I should acknowledge this from the start: I was never a comic book geek. I was, in fact, slightly nervous around my childhood friends who drooled over dungeon illustrations in which some hapless tourist was dissected, bone by bone, and each body part parboiled in a bubbling cauldron.
What can I say? I had an underdeveloped id as a child. I hated pulling the legs off grasshoppers, too.
All of which is to say that Anthony Bourdain’s debut as a graphic novel writer is not targeted at readers like me. But I read “Get Jiro!” (Vertigo) anyway, mostly because I wanted to try to dissect the story for further insights into Bourdain’s view of the gastronomic world.
My first thought: Doesn’t the hero, a muscular, lantern-jawed sushi master, look like a Japanese version of Anthony Bourdain? Isn’t that the comic book equivalent of a slightly doughy Michael Keaton donning a Batman suit with six-pack abs?Get Jiro Preview
I thought Bourdain always wanted to write a graphic novel, not star in one?
Regardless, the book — set in a dystopian Los Angeles in which two rival chefs rule the city with an iron ladle — plays out as a blood-spattered, spaghetti western homage to the people and philosophies that Bourdain salutes. Starting with that antihero named Jiro.
As Bourdain told MSNBC, the main character is named after Jiro Ono, the 80-something sushi master from Tokyo who was the subject of last year’s mesmerizing, meditative documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi.” Bourdain and his collaborators (co-writer Joel Rose, illustrators Langdon Foss and Jose Villarrubia) transform this flesh-and-blood man, who searches for a kind of spiritual perfection with each piece of nigiri, into a sociopathic samurai willing to lop off the head of anyone foolish enough to order a California roll.
It must be a chef’s deep-seated fantasy to dispatch every tool who has watched “Iron Chef America” a few too many times and now considers himself a secondhand culinary expert. You can almost feel the years of pent-up frustration being released as Jiro’s sushi knife/samurai sword swiftly slices into one smug bro’s neck in the book. It’s a swing for every chef who has ever had to stand in his restaurant and swallow the half-formed opinions of some half-wit.
Among other topics that Bourdain and company take a hack at:
* Vegetarian, locavore types who respect all forms of animal life except the human one. (One of the evil overlord chefs, Rose, seems like a combination of Alice Waters and a bloodthirsty Mayan earth mother. There is a hilarious panel in which Jiro is tasered in an alley where a poster of Rose hangs. Under her image is a single word: Obey.)
* The foie gras controversy in California. Rose’s hypocritical crew gathers for a surreptitious meal, tittering at their illicit plate of velvety fattened duck liver. You half suspect the reason Bourdain set the story in Los Angeles was to take one more swipe at the foie gras ban there.
* Sexism in the kitchen. A classically trained chef named Bob — Foss and Villarrubia make him look like a cleft-lipped Incredible Hulk, with a similar temper — oversees a sprawling global empire of restaurants, most of which serve high-grade dog food. The sexism of Bob’s organization is personified in one character, whose kitchen attire consists of a hip-high chef’s jacket and panties. (It’s a fine line between titillating the traditional comic book audience and making a statement about sexism in the hospitality industry.)
* The disappearance of classic French bistros, where the hygiene is questionable but the pot au feu is mind-blowing. You can almost hear Bourdain throwing small plates against the wall during his romanticized depiction of feline-infested bistros.
* The cops. In a sign that Bourdain has either forsaken his punk-rock roots or is just conjuring up his ideal officer, he creates a pair of porcine policemen who are more interested in culinary matters than crime. They know their sushi. They fret over their restaurant reservations when a riot breaks out. One suspects they cannot be bought off with doughnuts.
I have no idea whether Bourdain has created a comic book classic with “Get Jiro!” I do know that I had a ball trying to decipher its sometimes coded messages. Which, when you think about it, is rather food-geekie.
Bourdain would hate that.